Georgia 🇬🇪

Geographically in Asia, politically in Europe, Georgia is the perfect base for exploring the Caucasus. We visited Georgia before, between, and after visiting Azerbaijan and Armenia (Americans can enter Georgia without a visa for up to one year). Each time we visited, we explored a different part. We both really liked Georgia and hope to visit again one day. It’s beautiful, it has a rich history, and it has nice weather. And they are the oldest makers of wine in the world. What’s not to like?

“Tamada”, or toastmaster statue

Old Town Tbilisi

As usual, we hit the ground running with an Old City walking tour. It helps us get oriented, and the guides usually suggest some good spots for drinks and dinner. We visited old churches, a rare mosque that welcomes both Sunni and Shiite worshippers, and a fortress up on a hill. We saw the Mother Georgia, the ancient sulfur baths, and the ultra-modern Peace Bridge.

View of Tbilisi from the hill-top fortress

Afterwards, we had khinkali, khachapuri, and traditionally-made red wine with our new friend Miranda, and wound up pretty much drinking the night away at a jazz cafe called Singer, where the shelving was made from the parts of an old Singer sewing machine table.

Pro Tip: stab these khinkali by the neck with your fork and take a bite while holding them aloft to keep the steaming hot broth from getting all over you

On another night, we were able to catch up with our friend Maia, who we last saw in Myanmar on our visit there, and previously in Khartoum. It’s fun catching up with old friends in new cities!

Dinner with Maia at G. Vino

Tbilisi: Opera House area

On our next visit in town (after going to Azerbaijan), we visited the Opera House area, where we rented a small apartment from a woman who only spoke Russian and Armenian. It was small but cozy, and we were able to do our laundry there. It was near both the Opera House, and the History Museum, which had several good exhibits, including one on Soviet oppression. We also took the funicular up to Turtle Lake over in Vake Park, overlooking the Memorial to the Great Patriotic War. We did a walking tour on the north side of old Tbilisi, which focused more on old Soviet art and architecture. The walking tour meets at Fabrika Hostel, which is a really cool old Soviet sewing factory building that’s been turned into a hostel, featuring an amazing breakfast spread (open to visitors for 19 lari/$7).

At the Museum of Soviet Occupation
Memorial to the Great Patriotic War
Fabrika Hostel

Signaghi and Khakheti Wine Region

Along with Miranda, we took a day tour out to the wine-making region of Kakheti. Unfortunately most of the wine tasting of the day went to waste due to our debauchery of the night before- we could barely look at the stuff. Still, it was interesting to learn about how they make the wine, which is fermented in huge clay pots, with the seeds and skins still on the grapes.

The wine is strong here and the chacha is even stronger

We stopped for a visit at a church and nunnery at Signaghi, an old city. The town is lovely, with the picturesque wall of mountains in the distance separating this region of Georgia from Dagestan in Russia. The old church, Bodbe Monastery, is dedicated to St Nino, a young woman who brought Christianity into Georgia in the early 4th century. She made a cross out of two bent grape vines, tied together with her hair, which is why the Georgian cross is usually shown with bent arms. The church here houses a reliquary of St Nino and is a popular pilgrimage spot for Georgians and visitors from around the world.

Sighnagi

Mtskheta and Gori

Chris and I took another day trip to visit several sites northwest of Tbilisi. We stopped at the Church of the Holy Cross, perched atop a high plateau overlooking the confluence of two rivers, where the nation of Georgia was baptized in 337. Inside the nearby city of Mtskheta, we walked through the Old Town to the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli (Church of the Living Pillar), a World Heritage Site and the burial place of Christ’s mantle. The current building has been in place since 1029, but sadly lost many of its priceless antiques, such as Middle Ages frescoes that were white-washed by Russian Imperialists.

The confluence, with the cathedral visible in the old town

We also visited the caves at Uplistsikhe, where people lived all the way from the Bronze Age up to the late Middle Ages. It was an important capital city of the Kartli empire, long before the Georgian state. Worshippers from the Iberian peninsula came here to worship their pagan gods, and thrived until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. A bakery, prison, apothecary, living quarters, and a church are still visible there today, carved out from the rocky caves.

Uplistsikhe Caves, 15 km from Gori

From there, our day tour went to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. We visited a museum about the man, which also featured the bulletproof train car he rode in to go to the Yalta conference and to Potsdam. It was an interesting visit, which prompted a discussion about how much a nation should memorialize a public figure who figured so prominently into history but also caused so many deaths.

The many faces of Stalin

Tbilisi: Cathedral area

After taking a minibus down to Armenia for a visit, we returned to Tbilisi to get ready for our flights out. We rented an apartment in the Trinity Catherdral area of town, which is across the river from Old Town and near the Avlabari metro station (where you can catch the bus to Armenia). Our two bedroom, two-story apartment was just $31 a night and literally across the street from the beautiful cathedral, which is the largest one in the Caucasus. We really enjoyed being able to spread out a bit, work on my blog, work on taxes, and kind of take a rest from traveling for a few days. The views of the Cathedral were amazing.

Trinity Cathedral at night

So now we’re rested, researched, and ready for the next leg of our adventure: two weeks’ tour in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Follow along with us as we head down the Silk Road!

Country costs:

Flight from Dubai on FlyDubai: $200

Visa: none

Daily cost: $75 for two people

Armenia 🇦🇲

Armenia Zoravor Church Yerevan

We’ve just passed the nine-month mark of our trip, and our travels have brought us to Armenia. Did you know there’s over 4000 monasteries in Armenia? That’s a lot! As the first country in the world to formally adopt Christianity, much of Armenia’s identity is tied to St Gregory the Illuminator, and his conversion of the king and the nation in 301 AD- as well as conflicts with empires of other faiths ever since.

The Armenian Cross is a symbol found all over the country

Yerevan

We caught a minibus out of Tbilisi to come to Yerevan (one of those few occasions where we walk right up, and we’re the last two passengers the driver was needing for the run, so we left immediately- usually we wind up waiting ages and ages for the van to fill up). The van left from the Avlabari metro station and cost 35 Georgian Lari ($13 USD). Six hours later we were in Yerevan, with just a 20 minute stop at the border. American citizens do not need a visa for Armenia. As we passed through the mountains surrounding Yerevan, a light snow was falling, and our first few days in the city were a bit chilly and rainy- I was glad I had purchased a warm woolen scarf at a second-hand shop.

“Mother Armenia”

We went on a walking tour with Vako, one of the most knowledgeable guides I’ve ever had. Art, architecture, history, politics- he was a font of information as we traversed the capital city and then had drinks at a bar afterward. If you’re ever in Yerevan, be sure to sign up for his tour, which is free (you tip at the end however much you thought it was worth).

Yerevan Opera House
King Gagik of Armenia

We got an apartment in Yerevan, and it was really nice to have some space to spread out and relax a bit. We spent more time wandering down smaller side streets, eating at basement tavernas and having coffee and sweets at cafes. We also visited the Cafesjian Center for the Arts twice, for a look at the beautiful art there, as well as the fantastic view of Yerevan from the hillside.

Top floor of the “Cascade”, or Cafesjian Center for the Arts
Looking out over Yerevan

Garni and Geghard

We took a public bus out to the small village of Garni, to see the Greco-Roman temple there. Dedicated to the god Mhir, it is the only temple remaining from that time period (1st c AD) in Armenia. Partially reconstructed, it has nonetheless withstood fires, earthquakes, and dozens of invading empires. From the Merecdes Benz bus station, just take matruyshka 226 to visit (250 dirhams, about 50¢, takes one hour).

Temple at Garni

From Garni, we shared an old Lada taxi with two other travelers to go further up the mountain to visit Geghardavank Monastery, a beautiful 4th century church that claims to have a piece of Noah’s Ark (which landed at nearby Mt Ararat) as well as a piece of the spear that the Romans used in the crucifixion of Christ. I didn’t see either of these relics, so I can’t say for sure that they are there, but I can say that it is a beautiful church carved into a rocky cave, and I’m glad we went. Our shared taxi to get us up there and back down to Garni was 3000 dirhams, split four ways ($1.50 USD each).

Geghardavank Monastery (“Monastery of the Spear”)

Nagorno-Karabakh

Historically an Armenian region, in the time of the Soviets this province was added to Azerbaijan on the maps, which caused big problems once the USSR broke down. In 1988, Soviet Armenia demanded the area be transferred to them, away from Soviet Azerbaijan. Over the next six years, roughly 35,000 people were killed as both sides fought it out. In 1994 there was a cease-fire, which remains to this day. Azerbaijan says the regions is theirs, and visitors are not allowed; but it’s quite easy to catch a bus from Yerevan in Armenia and visit (7 hours, 4500 dirhams – $9 USD from Kilikia Bus Station). When leaving Armenia and entering the “Republic of Artsokh” (which is defended by the Armenian army), visitors receive a slip of paper with the address of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where for 3000 dirhams you can get a visa (they won’t put it inside your passport, so as not to cause problems with Azerbaijan or their allies).

“We Are Our Mountains” monument

Did we visit? Well, I’m not saying, but here are some photos. It’s a beautiful region and some of Armenia’s oldest churches are there, as well as rolling hills, meadows, mountains, and picturesque villages.

Armenian Cathedral at Shoushi, reliquary of the right arm of Grigoris, and symbol of the fight for independence from Azerbaijan
Gandzasar Monastery, home to thousands of manuscripts and supposedly also the resting place of John the Baptist’s head
Triganakert, a city named for King Tigran the Great 95 BC
People used to live in these villages but fled during the war

And that was Armenia for us. We will enter Georgia one more time, spend a few days there, then head for Turkmenistan. I’ll be posting about Georgia in just a couple of days, so if you haven’t already, click the “Follow” button below to get a notification when I post a new one!

Country costs:

Bus ride to: $13

Visa: free

Per day costs: $75 for two people

Azerbaijan 🇦🇿

Baku Flame Towers

We arrived in Azerbaijan via the overnight train from Tbilisi, which was cheap ($20) and easy. It left Tbilisi’s Station Square at 8:40 pm, arrived at the border just before midnight, and made it to Baku by 9 am. We had already applied for an e-visa for Azerbaijan ($55), which we printed out in Tbilisi, and they do the immigration stuff on the train. We had a 4-person sleeper berth which was fairly comfortable, aside from being super hot for a couple of hours before they turned off the heater.

Chris in our train cabin

Baku:

Our first day in Baku, we dropped our bags at our hotel, and then walked a few blocks to look at the huge Caspian Sea (the largest inland lake in the world). We got a late breakfast/early lunch at a cafe, and went back to the hotel and checked in and took a nap. We were staying at a hotel next to the train station/metro station so it was very easy with the transport. When we went out to dinner that night, we found a little basement tavern where no one spoke English. One patron who knew a few words helped us order, and we wound up with this delicious meal for under $20.

Pork chops, pickled veg, bread, cheese, herbs and beer

The next day we went on a walking tour of the capital city, Baku. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we learned a lot. It’s a very interesting place, visually, with parts of the walled old city dating back to the Middle Ages, plus European-style buildings funded by oil-rich oligarchs in the early 1900s, and ultra-modern skyscrapers built with new oil money in the last few years. It’s quite a blend and yet it works.

Maiden Tower, 12th c
National Academy of Sciences, 1908
Baku is growing, up and out!

A brief history:

Early residents of this area of the world were Zoroastrian fire worshippers. When Islam arrived in the early 700s, the Zoroastrians were expelled towards India, and the area became Muslim. Assaulted by the Khazars and the Rus for the next few centuries, the city of Baku was also invaded by Mongols. The Persians finally took over the region in 1501, and even earlier than that were written records of oil being produced in Baku. The Russians and the Ottomans fought over Baku in the 1700s, with Russia eventually winning. Then the Russians fought the Persians for control of Baku (and their oil). By the 1890s, Baku supplied half the world’s oil. In 1920, the Russian 11th Red Army rolled into town and gave Baku an ultimatum: join Soviet Russia or be annihilated. Finally, in 1991, Azerbaijan achieved lasting independence.

Baku in 1861

Day trip to Qabala

We signed up to go on a day tour to Qabala, about 200 km from Baku. On the way we stopped in Shemakhi, to see Azerbaijan’s oldest mosque site. Built in 743, the mosque has been damaged and rebuilt after fires, earthquakes, and Soviet occupation. The residence of an Arabian caliphate in the 8th century, the mosque is the largest in the Caucases.

Inside Shemakhi Dzhuma

Then we drove to Qabala, an ancient capital city along the Silk Road. The area has a long and rich history, but was mostly destroyed during Soviet times. Now Qabala is undergoing a cultural comeback, with parks, green spaces, and recreational activities. We visited a ski resort there and a lake, which is probably really fun in deepest winter and in spring/summer. Although spring was just arriving in Azerbaijan while we were there, with warming-up temps and green buds starting to show, there was still snow in the mountains, but melting quickly.

Tufandag Ski Resort

Modern Baku

Back in Baku from our day trip, we took the metro to the Flame Towers (helpful hint: the funicular is closed on Mondays) and walked all around that area of town. When Chris visited Azerbaijan the first time in 2011, they were still constructing these towers. We also took the metro up a few stations to see the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Surrounded by a large park, we brought a picnic and sat by the “I ❤️ Baku” sign and ate lunch. The city gets winds coming in from the Caspian Sea- the name Baku actually means “wind pounded city”- but this day was warm and not too breezy. On the front steps leading up to the cultural center was an open-air exhibit of work by a photographer named Reza, which was really incredible work. His website can be found here. Inside the cultural center, designed by Zaha Hadid, are rotating exhibits- right now there’s one on classic cars and another on dolls.

The Flame Towers
I really need to stretch first next time

We enjoyed visiting Baku and Azerbaijan, but we’re ready to head back to Tbilisi to explore Georgia some more and then Armenia. We took the sleeper train back and got ready for our next adventure. Stay tuned for more Caucasus updates soon!

Country costs:

Train ride in: $20

Visa: $55

Per day costs: $90 for two people

Cruising the Indian Ocean: Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Reunion

Costa Cruise boat Indian Ocean

We had planned to go to Central Asia after India, but since it’s cold and wintry there in February, we spotted a cruise that was visiting four Indian Ocean islands. After considering the prices for lodging, meals, and airfare to such remote places, the cruise turned out to be a good deal- being flexible with our dates, we were able to get a heavily discounted fare for an upcoming sailing. We signed up- and got a free $50 onboard credit from Expedia!

Mauritius

Leaving the Maldives, we transited through Dubai and arrived in Mauritius a few days before the cruise. The small island has a fascinating history: known to Arab traders and the Portuguese but settled by neither, it was the Dutch in 1598 that populated the island for a hundred years- and completely wiped out the Dodo bird and the black ebony trees. In 1712 came the French, who valiantly fought the British during the Napoleonic Wars- the 1810 battle of Grand Port in Mauritius was the only naval battle the French won. But… four months later the Brits returned and prevailed, taking possession of the island. After the British abolished slavery, they produced sugar cane with the labor of half a million indentured laborers from India in what was called “The Grand Experiment”. Finally, in 1968, Mauritius gained its independence.

The sugar cane fields seem to go on forever here

We stayed three nights in the small village of La Gaulette on the southwest side of the island, in a fabulous roomy studio apartment (a place I really loved). We swam at La Morne beach, saw the UNESCO memorial commemorating the end of the slave trade, and teamed up with our hotel neighbors to drive to waterfalls and a nature reserve in the interior of this picturesque volcanic island. Then we moved north for two days, staying in Grand Baie, where we went scuba diving (and saw a very cool scorpionfish trying to camouflage himself next to a sunken wreck we were exploring). A barrier reef encircles the entire island of Mauritius and makes for some of the best diving in the world. That night we had a delicious Creole seafood dinner. The next morning we boarded our Costa cruise at Port Louis.

Chamarel Falls

Seven Colored Earth Natural Reserve

Touristing with friends

Seychelles

After two northbound days at sea, our first port of call was Victoria, Seychelles. The Seychelles are a collection of 115 islands, most of which are uninhabited. We felt like the tour excursions were rather pricey, so we set off on our own. We took a public bus up and over the granite spine of the island, and arrived at a postcard-perfect beach. On the other side of the street: a small shop, where we purchased cold Seybrew beers and Slow Turtle Ciders, which we enjoyed while sunbathing. The water was warm, the beach was clean, and the waves were perfect for body surfing. The next day we took another bus to Beau Vallon beach on the other side of the island, and enjoyed that one too. Some fellow cruisers we met the second day told us “This beach is just like the excursion we took yesterday except it didn’t cost €140!”.

Madagascar

After two and a half days in the Seychelles, we sailed southwest for one day and arrived at Nosy Be, Madagascar (“Nosy” means island, and “Be” means bay in Malagasy). Originally settled by explorers from Indonesian Borneo, Madagascar has a little different feel to it than the rest of the Indian Ocean islands- part Indonesian, part Indian, and part African, along with some remnants from European exploration as well. On Nosy Be, Chris and I took a tuk-tuk to a lemur sanctuary, where we were able to check out 15 of Madagascar’s 71 lemur species. In a “semi-free” environment, the primates live on their own little islands- they don’t like to cross water- not in cages, but fairly domesticated by this point, cared for and fed by tourists and park staff.

On our second day in Madagascar, our boat docked in a different city- Antsiranana, previously known as Diego Suarez. After a stroll around the small city (it was a quiet Sunday, so not much going on), we found a bar with cold Three Horses Beer and not-so-blazing-fast WiFi, and caught up on some communications.

img_8064
Chris in Madagascar

 

We had another day at sea while we sailed up and around Madagascar- did I mention that our time onboard our cruise is mainly spent trying out the culinary creations of the 106 cooks, served by the 145-person restaurant(s) staff? Of course we also make time each day for the four hot tubs, two pools, theater, five clubs, two coffee bars, and the gym. Plus lying on the loungers up on the solarium deck at night watching the Southern Cross rise in the jet black sky- so clear you can see the Milky Way. It’s just beautiful.

A fisherman approaches our cruise ship

Anyway. On our third Madagascar day, we docked at Tamatave (also called Toamasina), where we decided to visit another lemur park, because they are just so danged cute. I didn’t like this one as much, because they kept some in cages- as they are getting acclimatized to the park- but the park does stretch for acres and acres where other semi-wild lemurs roam free (we spotted two in the trees). As most of the wild lemur species are endangered, I guess this is better than losing them all.

I love those sweet lemur faces!

Reunion

After another day at sea, we arrived at the last of our stops in the Mascarene archipelago , the island of Reunion. Originally known as Isle de Bourbon, it’s now a French overseas department. The island is dominated by a volcanic caldera, and surrounded by both black sand and white sand beaches. Roaming around the small town of Le Port on our first day there, it seemed so European after our other stops. We found a bar and settled in for some cold beverages and people-watching. The next day, we took a bus to the beach town of St-Gilles-des-Bains, and played in the ocean for a while. Standing at the back of the boat that night, we watched the glittering lights of Reunion fade away as we headed back to Mauritius.

The dodo might be extinct, but you can still find a cold one at this bar

We arrived in Mauritius and docked, and spent the day in Port Louis, visiting some historic buildings there including the Caudan Waterfront and the Aapravasi Ghat, a UNESCO World Heritage Museum that tells the story of the 462,000 indentured servants brought from India, China, Comoros, Madagascar, and Yemen to work in sugar cane plantations. Most modern-day Mauritians are descended from these laborers, so it’s a big part of their history. It’s a good museum to visit and includes parts of the original processing buildings for the immigrants.

Aapravasi Ghats Heritage Museum, Port Louis

After one last night on the boat, we were done with our cruise. We left Port Louis, and stayed at a BandB on the southeast end of Mauritius for two more nights. Tomorrow we fly from here to South Africa, to visit some friends in Durban.

Have you been to the Indian Ocean islands? What was your favorite?

The Maldives

Maldives Thulusdhoo boat island water beach

If the sea level continues to rise at the current rate, the Maldives will be the first country to cease to exist due to climate change. At 2.4 meters, it has the lowest high point in the world. Made up of over 1200 islands grouped over 26 atolls, it is the smallest country in Asia by both population and landmass. It is the first country in the world to aim to be carbon neutral by 2020, and tourism and “green taxes” provide a large source of income for the islands, which have seen tourism numbers double over the past ten years. Even with the threat of rising sea levels, there is still quite a lot of economic a activity going on here, such as skyscrapers being built, artificial islands being created, and metals being mined.

Maldives atoll as seen from space

So if you want to see the Maldives, you better hurry! Since we were just in India for two months, we found that the budget airline Indigo has $116 fares to the Maldives, so we decided to visit. Visitors to the Maldives have three choices: a private island owned completely by a luxury resort, a local island populated by Maldivians with guest houses and small restaurants, or a live-aboard boat. We chose a local island.

A resort island we passed by on the ferry

Flying in, we could see the ring-shaped atolls, surrounded by coral reefs, from the airplane. We landed at Velana airport, which is situated on a completely man-made island. From there you can take a sea plane to a resort island (Maldives has the largest seaplane operations in the world), take a speedboat to any number of desired islands, or take a public ferry to Malè, the capital, which is located just next to the airport.

Taking the ferry from Velana airport

We stayed overnight in Malè, which is about 6 sq km and holds around 1/3 of the 500,000 Maldivian population. Male was originally founded by Dravidian people from southern India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was a monarchy until 1968, and in that year the old palace and fort were destroyed. Only the home of the last sultan- now the National Museum building- and the Friday Mosque remain from ancient times.

Male, the capital

The next morning, we took a speedboat to Thulusdhoo, a medium-sized island in the Kaafu atoll. Less than 1400 Maldivians live on the island, which is only 2.8 sq km. We stayed in a small guesthouse which served a delicious breakfast each morning, and we tried out a different local restaurant each evening. Maldivian specialties include masuni (flatbread served with shredded tuna and shaved coconut flavored with limes and onion and spices), and roshi (a mixture of sauce, chopped up flatbread, and fish/chicken/ or beef cooked together). Also on the island is a Coca Cola factory- the only one in the world that uses desalinized water.

Masuni
Chris at the Coke factory

The Maldives make up 3% of the world’s coral reefs. So of course we went diving, and were able to see a tiger shark, lots of moray and honeycomb eels, black tip reef sharks, triggerfish, sting rays, eagle rays, tuna, batfish, sea turtles, and more. The corals are not very vibrant here- apparently a warm El Niño in 2015 and 2016 causes pretty severe loss of coral life. However, the array of aquatic life in the area is still one of the most diverse in the world.

A coral reef keeps the area around the island’s bikini beach calm and protected
Chris and Deah, in between dives

Aside from diving- and eating- we pretty much just… lounged around. We watched dolphins swim by. We read books, and played card games. We walked around the whole island, which only takes about 40 minutes. We watched snorkelers and paddle boarders. We could take a boat to a nearby resort island but we didn’t feel like it. Basically, we just enjoyed the sun, the cool breeze, lots of fresh Coca Cola, and relaxed.

Dolphins swimming next to our boat

That is not to say that the islands are relaxing for everybody. The Maldives have the 7th highest incarceration rate in the world, and Islamic Sharia law is in full force here- homosexuality is illegal, flogging is a common punishment, and extramarital relations are outlawed. In February of 2018, the then-President (who was half-brother to the President from 1978-2008) declared a state of emergency and had several judges arrested, which was followed by mass protests in the streets of Malè. However, in September 2018, a new president was elected, who ran on a platform of upholding human rights, including releasing several political prisoners.

And so- the Maldives remain a unique tourism spot in the world. Wholly populated by Muslims, but selling pricey licenses to resorts to sell alcohol and pork to their guests. All Maldivian women wear the hijab, but western (and Chinese and Indian) tourists wear shorts on the streets and bikinis on the beach. The islands may not survive another fifty years, but 10-story hotels are being constructed at a rapid pace. With a new president and political party in power, the world will be watching to see how they face upcoming challenges.

Sunny skies ahead for Maldivians?

Next up for us: we fly to Mauritius, to hop on a cruise of the “Vanilla Islands”!

Maldives Country Costs:

Flight from Mumbai: $116 each

Visas: free

Daily costs: about $140 for two (slightly higher than normal for us because of scuba diving four times each)